While sections 74 and 75 of the Constitution of Malawi prohibit both employment and allowing young persons aged below 18 to buy and drink beer or do any sexual activities in premises licensed to sell beer, the story at most pubs in the country is discouraging.
In Chirimba and Kachere townships in Blantyre and Bwandiro and Chigwirizano in Lilongwe, for instance, the number of children that patronise drinking places continues to rise. Even on some counters, it is minors selling and serving customers.
“You cannot employ older women to be on the counters or serve customers, you will lose business,” explains Vincent Dzimbiri (not real name), who runs a bottlestore in Kachere Township.
True to his words are the ages of the girls that are operating at the bottlestore. There are six, aged between 14 and 25, whose key role is to serve customers and they are on a full salary of K10 000 (about $16) a month. Apart from these, there are other 10 aged 12 to 17, who are recruited to attract customers. They are not on salary.
“Only those that add value to our business are given a room and they pocket whatever they get, but we expect them to pay K1 000 a day,” he explains.
Experts have always argued that allowing minors at places such as these spoil their future. Soche Child Justice Court Magistrate Esmie Tembenu says the Liquor Act prohibits employment of young children under the age of 18 in bars or selling beer. Section 78 of the Act also says “any licensee who allows his premise to be a place of habitual meeting of common prostitutes or any other person for immoral purposes shall be guilty and liable to pay a fine of K500 and a year imprisonment.”
Tembenu adds that minors under the age of 18, if employed in bars, would be tempted to start drinking beer and sleeping with older people.
So who is to blame? Anthony Kasunda, Blantyre City Council (BCC) public relations manager admits shortfalls in their grip.
“The issue of teenagers patronising bottlestores needs multi-sectoral approach to tackle. Most importantly, parents are crucial stakeholders. The current trend cannot be attributed to BCC alone,” argues Kasunda.
The situation exposes serious gaps in child control at home level. Out of 11 minors sampled by The Nation, only five live with their parents. Three live with grandparents and others could not reveal their home identities.
“I cannot believe my son visits such places. He sneaks out while we are asleep,” says a mother, whose 12-year-old son we found at a bottlestore in Kachere.
Like Chancy’s mother whose 13-year-old sneaks to bottlestores at Chirimba, she promised an action against the child and practice, but she blames it highly on councils for overlooking bottlestore owners operating in residential areas.
But Kasunda does not agree.
“The challenge is lack of respect for laws. People would want to be policed always instead of just following the dictates of their licence. We try our best to enforce, but the city is big and our personnel cannot be everywhere all the time.”
Dzimbiri, on the other hand, denies being responsible for attracting minors at the pub. He says they are in business and with the current generation, it is not easy to distinguish, who is above 18 years and not. He says the girls lie on their age to get the job or be allowed into the drinking space.
“We don’t have national identity cards, how can we know the real age of a person. We have a youthful population and nowadays height and one’s appearance hardly match the age? How can you control them? Looking at their faces? No! Let us be sober in these issues. It’s not our fault,” argues Dzimbiri.
In an earlier interview, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) secretary Grace Malera faulted the child protection system.
“A legal framework in isolation cannot effectively be used as a mechanism for addressing the issue of child protection; hence, the need for a holistic approach that would encompass both the legal and non-legal-interventions to ensure that children are effectively protected,” said Malera.
Eye of the Child, executive director Maxwell Matewere says: “The law is very clear on this matter and authorities, members of the community policing and child protection communities, should conduct an inspection and arrest the crime.”
Group Village Head (GVH) Mbayani, who participated in the establishment of child protection committees in Mbayani and Chirimba townships confirmed malfunctioning of the committees in the areas, but promised to revive them, saying it is getting worse.
GVH Kachere says: “If you mention Kachere, what comes into one’s mind is prostitution. We have tried several efforts, but the situation is still bad. We will revive the child protection committees. My worry is that we are building a generation that will cause more problems in the future,” says the chief.
While different players heap blame on the other, there is need for measures that solves this crime once and for all. Minister of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati says the issue is compromised by several factors from the moment bottlestores are licenced, but says once her ministry finishes clearing out street kids in cities, it will stretch its muscles further by closing all bottlestores that entertains children.n